It may seem like a radical position, but I believe that you have the right to choose how people communicate with you.
This stems from my personal life and my life as a coach and healer. We all deal with “difficult” people who leave us feeling anxious, angry, or depressed after an interaction. If uncomfortable feelings were a disease, some people are just carriers.
I remember someone who married a family member. She was always in conflict with one or more members of the family. She would push everyone’s buttons at every opportunity. Conversations with the family often centered around her nastiness.
She would probe, almost skillfully to find the thing that would eventually tip the scale and tick someone off. I have to admit that I fell into her trap more than once.
Two things are generally happening when you are being triggered by another’s communication:
1. That person is ignorant of how their interaction is affecting others.
2. That person is consciously or unconsciously being rewarded by the emotional reaction they cause.
One thing I have witnessed many times is that upset is often about a lack of control—over others, over the situation, or over life in general. These challenging people exert control by firing emotional triggers in other people. It may sound counterintuitive, but there is a sense of safety for them in the conflict.
Children, particularly pre-teens, in my experience, are very skilled at this. They are exploring their world and learning their boundaries. It can be a confusing time for them with physical, emotional, and social changes.
As a parent, it’s hard to set boundaries without entering into conflict or becoming authoritarian. It can be done, and it’s essential to raising empathetic children into adults who socialize well.
Concerning other adults, I’ll quote a therapist who I deeply respect, “we teach people how to treat us.”
It’s Harder, The Closer We Are To People
A client recently told me a story about a family member who had become verbally abusive, causing a blowup between the two.
My question for this client was, “would you allow a complete stranger to speak to you that way?”
The answer was a resounding, “no.”
My next question was, “then why would you allow that from someone who purports to love you?”
The challenge with people we are close to is the feeling of obligation to remain in a relationship with them. I have cut off family members who didn’t respect my boundaries, but it is challenging. It can be even more difficult with intimate partners who we live with.
People who know us and want to play these control games also have more ammunition.
It can be so tempting to argue or yell back—but everyone loses in most cases. Sometimes it can feel like you are going to escalate things if you speak up for yourself.
Some Practical Ways To Set Boundaries
“You have the right to remain silent.” The first thing to understand that all conversation is voluntary. There indeed can be repercussions for choosing not to participate, but it is your choice to do so.
You also have the right to set the terms under which you will communicate. In this case, the other person can accept or reject those terms.
A few years ago, I was in a legal dispute with someone I’ll just say had a tenuous hold on truth and probably an untreated mental health issue. She had made some shocking and untrue claims. She kept trying to get me to meet with her one-on-one, but I refused. I told her that under no circumstances would I meet with her without a neutral third party present and a record of any conversation.
Eventually, we were successful in putting the case to rest.
So let’s say that someone is angry and yelling at you. You feel yourself starting to get angry – at this point, facts and who’s right don’t matter – it’s going to become a battle of emotions. You have every right to say something like, “I can see that your angry and this is important to you. I would like to work this out when we can both do so calmly.”
Frequently the other person will try to continue to bait you into the conflict. At this point, you can repeat or rephrase what you said, refusing to get into the emotional battle.
A strategy I have employed with people who have been particularly nasty or insulting is to have a neutral stock phrase that neither conflicts with nor agrees with the challenging person. My very favorite is, “I’m sorry you feel that way.”
Them: “You’re a big giant jerk.”
Me: “I’m sorry you feel that way.”
Them: “Well you’re stupid, and smell bad, and I’ve never liked you.”
Me: “I’m sorry you feel that way.”
It is frustrating for the other person because you are not giving them what they are really looking for, and you are also honoring yourself by not agreeing with them. You are not rewarding their behavior. Psych 101 teaches us that behavior that is rewarded is more likely to be repeated.
Another tactic, used with both children and adults, is cutting the person off and walking away when they become abusive. The phrase I like to use here is, “It’s not OK to talk to me like that.” At that point, you just leave the conversation.
Do not lecture or debate.
As a nerd, I like to think of Gandalf confronting the Balrog on the bridge in The Fellowship of The Ring, “You cannot pass!” This is a form of emotional self-defense. Make a short, clear statement about what is not acceptable and refuse to participate.
Do not apologize later for setting a boundary. It is your right to do so, and it is healthy for you to do it.
People may be very unhappy about you setting boundaries. You have to ask yourself how much respect a person has for you if they do not believe you deserve boundaries.
When my daughter was 4, I made a typical young parent mistake. In a moment of frustration, I used a phrase I learned from my parents that I had sworn I would never say. I said, “what is wrong with you?”
My daughter glared back at me and said, “nothing is wrong with me.”
She caught me good. I immediately looked into her eyes and said, “you are absolutely right, there is nothing wrong with you. I should not have said that and I’m going to try to do better.” She was right for calling me on my BS and setting a boundary – that she was not going to accept shame from an adult.
We’ve had lots of conversations in the family about communication. It’s not OK to make fun of someone’s appearance. We can talk about the behavior we don’t like, but we do not shame the person. Most importantly, I have explained to my girls that I am human, and I may screw up from time to time. I fully expect them to call me on my behavior when I do.
Boundaries are essential to our body, mind, and spirit. Proper boundaries protect us, and we have to be responsible for setting them.
What’s your take on what you just read? Comment below or write a response and submit to us your own point of view or reaction here at the red box, below, which links to our submissions portal.
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